1917: A masterclass in genre blending

1917 film image from IMDb

There have been many movies about the First World War over the years. The first ones came out while the war was still being fought, and it seems every generation since has tried on multiple occasions to try to understand the bloody conflict through a movie camera lens. Sure, the list of films that depict the war’s much more devastating sequel is much longer, but the fact remains that any filmmaker that wants to attempt a WWI film of his or her her own faces a daunting challenge: how to make the film interesting, and not simply a retread of the same thing over and over again. How do you make it fresh?

This was the challenge that faced director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) when he went to make his own film about the horrors of war in the trenches of the Western Front. Mendes was inspired by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a Trinidadian author who fought in the war and shared his experiences with his grandson while he was growing up. One wonders what conversations were had in Hollywood studio offices as Mendes pitched 1917, a film inspired by his grandfather’s stories. Obviously, this pitch was successful, as 1917 is nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture. So, how did Mendes manage to make it fresh?

By taking that figure of speech, “horrors of war”, literally. See, while 1917 may technically be a war drama, it isn’t filmed the way a classical war drama would be. Instead, it takes its cues from the horror genre. Its pacing, lighting, editing, framing, musical score, and cinematography are all much more reminiscent of Halloween or The Thing than All Quiet on the Western Front. They even include several jump-scares!

Now, to be clear, this film has no ghosts, monsters, or slashers. It doesn’t need them, as seeing what actual soldiers who fought in the Western Front had to go through is scary and horrifying enough. The result is an incredibly effective film that is truly edge-of-your-seat tense, as it makes you frightened for what is going to happen to the two soldiers (played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) who are the film’s main protagonists.

Now, I have to give credit to the two actors for their compelling portrayal of a pair of British soldiers trying to complete an incredibly dangerous mission all on their own, but the film has one more ace up its sleeve to keep us invested. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, No Country For Old Men) decided to pull a stunt that appears to have become popular recently, and film it all in a way that makes it look like a single, long take with no cuts. This is a very difficult way to film, and requires quite a lot of skill to pull it off well. I am happy to report that they succeeded with 1917, and the end result helps to keep the tension going as it means you never really get a break in the action.

While we’re on the subject of things this movie does well, I would like to give a quick shout-out to the attention to historical detail this movie had. Set during Operation Alberich, a strategic German retreat to a much stronger and more easily defensible position, our two main characters are British soldiers sent to warn a unit that is pursuing the Germans that they are walking into a trap. As a result, they have to make their way across a landscape that has been devastated by the fighting. The filmmakers did an excellent job of portraying what life on the Western Front was like and showcasing historical details that often get missed by other filmmakers. For instance, time is spent to showcase how far superior the German trench-works and rations were to those of the British. We see scenes of devastated French towns that look just like photographs of those ruined towns taken at the time. The film even acknowledges the more than 2.8 million soldiers fighting for the British who came from across its vast global Empire.

This film is an excellent example of genre-blending done right. It showcases how thinking outside the box can make something you’ve seen before feel completely new, while also paying respect to the people who actually fought in the First World War with its attention to detail. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for history buffs and for horror movie buffs. As of writing, I don’t know whether it will get the Academy Award for Best Picture or not, but if it does, it will have truly earned it.

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